Mental Illness from a Christian Perspective

Mental-DisordersOver the weekend we got the news that Rev. Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, committed suicide. Most of us know Warren as the author of The Purpose Driver Life and several other books as well as the pastor of Saddleback Church. I was not aware that Matthew had been fighting mental illness “since birth” as Warren states. Warren wrote that Matthew committed suicide in spite of receiving the best help available and that the decision to kill himself came in a “moment of deep despair.” My first reaction upon hearing this news was to relate all too well to what Matthew was going through and to pray for the Warren family. My request to you, dear reader, would be to pray for them as well. They are going through something that no parent should ever have to go through.

Unfortunately my reaction to offer condolences and prayer was not the first reaction of all Christians. It would seem that there are many in our dysfunctional family who feel the need to judge, to ridicule and shoot vitriol at the Warrens. Instead of offering comfort they are offering condemnation. Quite frankly it sickens me. I came across this post that talks of the Warren’s tragedy and some of the examples of the pure hate being spread to the Warrens the author included in his post made me want to throttle my laptop at a wall. Here are some of what Mr. Viola included (edit: I want to make clear that Mr. Viola did not make these comments, rather he shared them and did his best to rebutt the comments and admonish those who made them):

Train up your children in the way, live a godly example with right priorities, care enough to home-school despite the great sacrifice involved, don’t let them date unchaperoned, have daily family devotions, turn off the 1-eyed idiot, TRULY HAVE A PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE, and your children WILL NOT COMMIT SUICIDE, nor will they be involved in homosexuality, nor fornication.

He killed himself, it’s much worse than fornication or homosexuality or Onanism or eating pork. He denied himself a chance to get better. If your kids need a chaperone to date, why do you let them date? They shouldn’t be dating if they are not mature enough to control themselves.

He could not save his own because Mr. Warren does not truly understand how his own heart works, how it is broken and the mechanism by which Jesus laid out the example of how to fix it. Matthew killed himself because he did not understand either. He was a victim of his own ignorance and the ignorance of his family, friends, society and Christians around him — presently!

Personally I am appalled ashamed that the Warrens are having to endure comments like this. As Christians we are called upon to love one another and this is what they get? We are told to not judge and often we Christians are the most judgmental and hateful people in the room. When did scripture change to state that it’s OK for us to spread hate and judgment so long as we claim that we’re doing it in “Chrsitian love?”

It didn’t and it is unacceptable. We need to stop. Now.

I take this issue personally. I get so angered at the Warrens having to endure this hate because I had a battle with depression and generalized anxiety disorder. That period of a little over a year (I thank God everyday that it wasn’t longer) was the darkest period of my life. I felt alone and abandoned by my Lord. I was literally scared of my own shadow. Fear gripped me at every turn. I constantly had panic attacks and the despair I felt was indescribable. The whole experience was my vision of Hell and it’s not something I would wish upon anyone. I have to admit that before this experience there was a part of me who felt those with mental illness had some kind of weakness but my mind was changed when I was the one on medication and receiving counseling.

You feel differently about something when the issue hits home.

My mental health battle was not the result of a lack of faith or because of a demon. My mental illness was a bump in my life’s road, the same bump that many other people find themselves experiencing through no fault of their own.

I am thankful that through the miracle of medication and a wonderful counselor who is a Christian – not to mention the grace of God – that I was able to come out of this experience a stronger person with a heart for those who are struggling with mental issues.

Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, it is not a judgement for sin, it is not caused by a lack of faith and it is not caused by one being possessed by a demon (these are actual things I have heard for myself by professing Chrsitians!). Mental illness is just that: An illness. When one is fighting a mental disease they require love, support, the best help available and prayer. What they or their families do not need to hear is that their faith isn’t strong enough or that they have somehow sinned and are getting what they deserve.

Jesus said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Would you want someone telling you that your son’s or daughter’s depression was being caused by a sin they had committed or that their suicide was because you had not “trained them up” correctly? Would you want someone telling you that mental illness is a sign of weakness when you know yourself that it isn’t? So why would anyone do this to someone else?

It’s time for us to become educated about mental illness and it’s time for us to be loving and show grace to those who are experiencing this dreadful and hellish battle. We need to stop looking at depression and other mental illness as a pox or a sign that one is unclean and find out what we can do to help that person and their family. It’s time to truly be the salt and light, hands and feet of Jesus to those who need it the most.

Let this experience with the Warrens encourage us to reach out to those who are experiencing difficulty with mental health instead of condemning them. Jesus loves them just as much as he loves us. Why can’t we do the same?

Jonathan

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6 thoughts on “Mental Illness from a Christian Perspective

  1. After hearing of Matthew’s death, I spent a lot of time praying and reflecting on my own experience. I am only now emerging to join the conversation about it.

    Like Matthew, I am a Christian with a mental illness who has attempted suicide.

    Unlike Matthew, I lived to tell about it.

    The vitriol of Mr. Viola’s words are abominable. Fortunately, they are not representative of the Christian faith community as a whole. I can say through experience that many Christians embraced me and my family through my illness and continue to encourage me to “choose life” in spite of my struggle.

    I appreciate this post. I only quibble with one sentence – “Mental illness is just that – an illness.”

    Mental illness is not a puzzle science will someday solve, but a spiritual mystery we can only mourn (as we pray and seek treatment) while we wait for God to release us.

    1. I should have pointed out that Mr. Viola was only sharing what he had read, he was not posting the hateful comments. In fact he set out to refute them and admonish those who had made them.

      We will have to agree to disagree on the mental illness sentence. While I am a Christian and a pastor, I am also a paramedic with a fair bit of education of how the body works. I very much believe mental health issues to be an illness just like any other ailment. This is not an affliction from God.

      1. I would agree mental illness is like physical illnesses that can be diagnosed and treated (with mixed results). I am only refuted the rather arrogant scientific assumption that with enough time, intelligence, and money, we will find a “cure” for it.

        All illnesses – mental and physical alike – have roots in our spiritual dis-ease flowing from the Fall and “there is no human help” when it comes to a cure. I certainly support research for better treatment and compassionate care, but God alone can make us whole.

      2. Again we will have to agree to disagree, sir. As many diseases as we are able to treat and cure, mental illness should certainly be included in that someday. To say that only God can ultimately release us from an ailment is absolutely correct. However, who’s to say that God doesn’t use modern medicine to do His work? I firmly believe that He does.

  2. I was thinking about this when I heard about Matthews death. As Christians we talk about joy, whether as a fruit of the Spirit or just the joy of the Lord being in us. It makes it easy for us to look at someone struggling with mental illness and assume that because they’re not full of joy there must be something wrong with their relationship with God!

    Unfortunately, one thing I’ve noticed is that people, Christian or not, can be very quick to judge or offer what they think is advice but slow to listen. I believe listening is one of the best things you can do for someone in that situation.
    My boyfriend has struggled with mental illness and addition for a long time but I’ve learnt that just listening to him when he is feeling down can help him a lot.

    Last year a couple of people in my church were diagnosed with cancer. While we were praying and supporting them through it, I had a thought. By going through the illness, them and those close to them were now better able to empathise and come alongside someone in a similar situation. This could be a way to bring people to God. It’s the same with mental illness. How can the church minister to those suffering from mental illness if has never had any experience of it?

    1. You hit the nail right on the head: “How can the church minister to those suffering from mental illness if has never had any experience of it?” Some people don’t like to face things that they fear and mental illness is something many people fear due to their preconceived notions about it. They believe all of the stereotypes and fear any contact with something so stigmatized. The church (and by that I mean all Christians) need to actively reach out to people in order to minister to them instead of casting them out.

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