Somewhere right now, a devoted Christian finds herself worrying a lot. Another has thoughts of dying, even sometimes wishing to be dead. Yet another seems to be “on the straight and narrow” for a while but then goes on what his pastor describes as a “sin binge.”
What do all these people have in common? They are committed followers of Jesus Christ. And they all struggle with mental illness. Would you recognize them within your congregation? Since 1 in every 4 adults struggles with mental illness at some point in their lives, probably not. They look like anyone else, far from the stereotypes of movies with psychiatric hospitals.
Often when people struggle with emotional problems, they turn to their pastor or church friends for guidance and help. “Why can’t I shake this fear and worry?” one might ask. Too often, the response creates a blame-game: “You just need to pray about it. Cast your cares on him. Don’t be anxious about anything.” The problem is, if we could do that, we would have done it already.
Sin is often the go-to answer when we see Christians (or non-Christians for that matter) struggling with a problem. A manic episode, in which a person’s behavior can get out of control and even dangerous, seems an awful lot like someone sinning. So we default to the “go-and-sin-no-more” answer and we feel like we are quite Christ-like in our guidance. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
The brain is a critical organ in the body that has a lot of control over what we think, say, and do. While the Bible teaches us to be self-controlled, not everyone has the same capacity for self-control. Due to the fact that there is a larger curse on the world (which is sin-created but not a direct personal sin), some are born with or develop decreased abilities to manage their lives in ways that meet an ideal standard. We know we have all sinned and fall short, yet those of us who can manage to keep our lives looking put-together do tend to feel pretty proud of ourselves. We are the worst at giving unhelpful advice that does more harm than good.
When things go wrong in the brain, our capacities are diminished. This is easy to understand in cases of developmental disability. The intellectual ability to understand complex theological principles cannot be a requirement of salvation, or any who do not possess that could not enter the Kingdom. Mental illness is less tangible or visible to a distant observer. One cannot always assess (without training on mental health symptoms) how able a person is to manage their emotions or behavior on their own.
So do we just give everyone struggling with mental health issues a pass on sin? Of course not, as that would harm them. But we cannot expect that their symptoms will go away if they would just stop sinning. After all, I know I can’t stop sinning on a daily basis… why should I expect that to be helpful advice for someone else who is clearly struggling?
Where do we go from here? First, encourage treatment, including counseling and medication if needed. Healing and restoration is the heart of the Gospel, and when we take steps to get well we are choosing not to accept sickness as a status quo. Second, be a support. Don’t try to fix the problem or make it go away. Make a meal, give a ride, offer encouragement to press on. And finally, learn more about mental health disorders and symptoms. Building awareness within our church communities helps decrease stigma and improves follow through in treatment.
After all, no one minds an understanding friend.