The following is an excerpt from my book, On Edge: Mental Illness in the Christian Context. You can buy the book here
“Christians live in a strange, in-between place. We know that Jesus conquered sin and death on the cross, and His work is done; His kingdom has come and yet is still coming. We live in a sin-cursed world, yet we know it is not our home. We know we are free from sin, yet we remain sinners each and every day. We know healing is possible, yet we continue to suffer from disease.
Our brains are just as prone to illness as the rest of our bodies are. When our brains are disrupted, whether chemically or structurally, illness manifests in a variety of ways. Emotions, heavily regulated by the limbic system in the brain, can become dysregulated. Excessively negative thinking, obsessions, highly anxious thoughts or feelings, hallucinations, and delusions are all examples of brain dysregulation. Considering mental illness becomes complicated as some Christians may try to fit these symptoms into their theology of self-control, joy, peace, or trusting in God. While there are certainly spiritual problems that can cause someone to feel depressed for a while, true clinical depression and other diagnosable mental illnesses are physical in nature.
Some Christians may argue this point, perhaps suggesting that symptoms of depression, for example, are too subjective to measure. If you can’t take a blood test or a brain scan and find an abnormality, you don’t have a true illness. While it would be wonderful to have a concrete medical test for depression or other mental illnesses, the absence of a medical test does not necessarily mean an absence of disease. For example, specific diabetes symptoms were noted for at least 300 years before a medical test was developed to easily detect its presence. Similarly, breast cancer existed long before the development of the mammogram in the 1950s.
Medical science can take decades, if not centuries, to develop objective, measurable tests that pinpoint the presence of a specific disease. It is not unusual for subjective symptoms to be noted and researched first, as this early stage of disease detection is necessary to even begin the process of developing specific laboratory tests. The more complex the organ function, the more difficult it will likely be to develop a valid and reliable medical test.
The brain is the most complex organ in the body. While we often compare it to the central processing unit of a computer, the brain is far more intricate than a programmed device. It is capable of adaptation and change. Only in the past 50 years have we begun to scratch the surface of brain dysfunction, and only in the past decade or so have we developed tests for early Alzheimer’s detection. We have a long way to go in the field of neuroscience.
So what does all this science talk have to do with a Christian worldview? Isn’t that just secular theory? Won’t faith in God bring Christians through anything they are going through? Medical science is extremely important for the Christian life as we seek to care for our bodies. If there were a simple blood test that could measure brain functioning, or a scan that could detect depression in the brain, the Christian struggling with mental illness would just go to her doctor, get a test, and take medication for a physical condition. She probably wouldn’t give it any more thought than if she had high cholesterol.
However, because we have not yet developed objective measures, doctors and counselors are currently forced to rely on their observations of mood and behavior. The patient comes in, explains what he or she has been feeling, and the doctor must decide from this self-report how best to treat the depressed patient. With this current method, medications can tend to be over-prescribed as primary care doctors are hurried and have less expertise in mental health disorders.
With these flaws in the proper diagnosis of mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety, some Christians dismiss mental illness altogether. When you are struggling with symptoms of mental illness, you may feel like it is just “all in your head.” This way of thinking leads the church down a road of blaming those that are truly ill for their illnesses.
Because of that in-between place of embracing the kingdom of God while we wait for it to be fully realized with Christ’s return, we fall victim to disease just like the rest of humanity. Satan is still actively at work in the world, and all types of illnesses are some of the fruit of his labors. Some who suffer from depression or other mental illnesses may find themselves blaming God, but in reality it is Satan who is to blame for our suffering in this broken world. In the midst of this reality, the church needs to be a place where the broken and hurting feel safe. The church must be a place where hope resides, where love endures, and where emotional safety flourishes, for it is Christ alone who offers a way out of our present suffering. Christ alone will walk alongside us as One who has also suffered.
Emotions are complicated. Those who do not struggle with mental diseases or dysfunction often have difficulty understanding the plight of those who do suffer. If you are seemingly able to control your emotions, why shouldn’t all other Christians be able to do the same? If someone in your church can’t control her emotions or do something to fix them, what does this mean about the Holy Spirit in her life? If emotions are off-balance, doesn’t that mean that one’s spiritual life is off-balance as well?
If a Christian had breast cancer, would this diagnosis mean the Holy Spirit had left her? Would the development of diabetes mean that this faithful Christian had stopped trusting in God? If another had a stroke and was immobilized, if his speech became disrupted as a result, would these be a result of his own sin? Of course not. Neither is mental illness a result of one’s own personal sin.
Treatment of mental illnesses requires a well-rounded approach, including therapy and sometimes medication. The need for medication will depend on the severity of symptoms as well as how well therapy and coping strategies work to bring the illness under control. The causes of mental illness can be varied and complicated. Addressing the underlying causes through a combination of medication and counseling has been shown to be the most effective treatment for these symptoms.”