Mental Illness and Theological Issues

This blog series about mental illness is inspired by a session taught by Irma Janzen from Fort Garry EMC, presented at the Ministerial Day on July 3, 2015 at Ebenezer Christian Church in Brandon, MB. Thanks to Irma Janzen and the Evangelical Mennonite Conference for addressing this important issue, and for doing so graciously, while challenging us all to carefully consider our beliefs and actions in this area.

When discussing mental illness, there are several pertinent theological issues that should be addressed. Good theology can be extremely helpful in how we understand and deal with mental illness, while bad theology can be devastating and can even lead to spiritual abuse within the church. In her session on July 3rd, 2015, Irma Janzen brought up four misguided theological ideas that pertain to mental illness, and I would like to go through them here.

1. The belief that depression is the result of sin.

If everyone who sinned became depressed, then everyone in the world would suffer from depression, but that is simply not the case. Even if everyone who committed a very specific sin became depressed, then it might be fair to say that people suffer from depression because they committed (insert specific sin here). But in reality, there is no one sin that causes depression, and there are many causes of depression that have nothing to do with sin (see the second post in this series for more about the causes of depression). Simply put, though sin does impact our lives in profound ways, there is no causal link between sin and depression, and as I pointed out in an earlier post, even people of incredible faith in the Bible like Elijah experienced extreme grief and sorrow, to the point where they wanted to die (1 Kings 17-19). 

2. The belief that the only therapy people need is prayer

Let me say this bluntly: I believe we all need prayer, and that praying is healthy for all of us. But that belief does not negate my other belief that sometimes we need more than prayer. This belief is deeply rooted in the Scriptures.

James 2:14-17 says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

Claiming that the only treatment Christians should accept for clinical depression is prayer is like saying the only things we should do to help feed the hungry is to pray for them. Surely prayer is a powerful thing, and many miracles have happened through prayer, yet God has created us to live in a physical world with physical realities, and instructs us to live out our faith in a physical way, not through a form of spiritual piety that is divorced from the physical reality God has placed us in. Prayers and platitudes, while they may be a good thing, are not the only thing we are called to when people are in need. Sometimes people actually need us to feed them. Other times they need a cast for a broken bone. Other times they need medication for heart disease, and in other cases they need medication to help them manage a devastating mental illness.

3. The belief that hallucinations and delusions are demonic

I will again state my beliefs bluntly at the outset of this section, in hopes that you will not misunderstand me. I believe that demons are real, and that they can create real problems for humanity. I also believe that, “the one who is in you [God] is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). 

Colossians 2:13-15 says, “ When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (emphasis mine).

Though I believe that demons can cause problems for us, we are assured by the Scriptures that Jesus disarmed those powers, and that all who are in him can be free from bondage. If you have sought help from others and prayed and asked God to take away the hallucinations and delusions that you experience, but still experience them, I would strongly urge you to seek a mental health professional. 

A pastor friend of mine said, “I think we as Christians should always look up first, and then look side to side”. Of course our spiritual lives and our relationship with God are important to us as believers, but we do live in a physical world with diseases and illnesses. Some of those physical realties can result in people, even Christians, suffering from a mental illness that causes hallucinations and delusions. So by all means, pray to the Lord, and place your trust in Jesus, knowing that if it is demonic, Jesus surely has the power to remove those demons, and if that is in fact the problem, he longs for you to come to him for healing. Some people think that if they do not receive healing, then more elaborate rituals are necessary. There was one incident in the Bible where Jesus instructed his disciples that fasting was necessary to be rid of a demon, which arguably might be the case. There are many ministries that have many elaborate rituals to go through that have no basis in Scripture, in order to try and “free” people from demonic oppression. The unfortunate reality is that many times, people are not demonized, but rather suffer from a terrible mental illness. In such cases, more elaborate and charismatic rituals are not the solution. Rather, the solution lies in treatment from mental health professionals.

The reality is, there are many forms of mental illness that result in hallucinations and delusions. My wife has a condition called hemiplegic migraines. It is a complicated migraine, which means it takes place in a different part of the brain from a normal migraine, and as such, the symptoms of it are not a bad headache and nausea, but rather she loses the use of her right arm and right leg. Some told her that her condition was a result of a lack of faith, others said it was demonic oppression. Yet it was a type of migraine, and can be easily controlled with proper medication. The doctor who diagnosed her shared that he once had a patient with a different sort of complicated migraine—but instead of causing temporary paralysis, it caused violent hallucinations and delusions. Once it was diagnosed, medical treatment made the delusions and hallucinations disappear. 

To insist that hallucinations and delusions are only demonic places a huge burden on those who are suffering. If it is in fact a mental illness, and their spiritual leaders insist that it is a spiritual problem, it causes tremendous amounts of damage. Such situations are down right spiritually abusive. It is preventing someone from receiving proper treatment for their illness because of insisting it is a spiritual problem when it is in fact a mental illness.

Just as consuming certain chemicals or drugs can cause hallucinations and delusions, certain illnesses can also cause it. If you saw someone take hallucinogenic drugs, then see them experience hallucinations, most of us would not assume that it is demonization, but rather the work of the drugs. Likewise, there are illnesses that cause hallucinations and delusions. 

Though I always pray for healing, even if it is a broken bone, I also go to see the doctor if the prayer does not result in miraculous healing (which is most of the time). Such an approach should also be taken when dealing with any mental illness, including those that cause hallucinations and delusions.

4. The belief that health and wealth are the ultimate evidence of a godly person

This is the prosperity gospel as it applies to mental illness. 

Prior to my wife being diagnosed with hemiplegic migraines, she was told that she was sick because she had a weak faith. These people believed that since God can miraculously heal people, that he always would if the person had a strong enough faith. Thus if healing did not occur, it meant that the sick person did not have a strong enough faith. 

What an terrible burden to place upon someone who is suffering! Now they not only have to deal with an illness, but also with guilt for not being good enough to have a super-human faith.

When looking through history, even the Apostle Paul and all of the other disciples of Jesus eventually died. Every human being ever since has also died. Even Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, died again later. Though some people have experienced miraculous healing, nobody, including Jesus, was able to avoid death. Jesus was resurrected on the third day, and promises that someday we all will be raised to new life to go to heaven, but that does not mean that our bodies will not get sick or even die in the mean time.

Though I do believe that miraculous healing can and does happen, I believe that how we demonstrate ourselves in the midst of our suffering also reveals evidence of strong faith. Prior to my wife receiving the proper diagnosis, there were several very dire possibilities, including a brain tumour, and how she demonstrated her faith in the midst of her suffering resulted in someone coming to the Lord, because of how astounded they were by her response. I think it is a godly response to suffering that shows more evidence of a godly person than getting healed. After all, anyone would be happy and grateful for miraculous healing. But not everyone can demonstrate godly character in the midst of suffering. 

God is not some vending machine or trick monkey to do our bidding. In light of this, I plead with you NOT to tell people who struggle with mental illness that it is because of a supposed lack of faith. Rather, walk with them through their pain and struggle, pray for them, and wait 

There are some theological truths that Irma Janzen spoke on that are extremely helpful when dealing with mental illness:

1. People can experience God’s unconditional love in times of darkness

Check out Romans 8:31-29:

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This passage needs no more explanation. Nothing can separate believers from the love of God, and this love can be experienced even in times of darkness.

2. Even if you are not cured of your illness, you can experience forgiveness and healing

1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” If we confess our sins to God, he will forgive us, and we can experience the amazing grace of God.

Additionally, God may heal you even if he doesn’t take away your illness. Healing sometimes looks different than we imagine. Sometimes it is our hearts that need more healing than our bodies. God can use our suffering in profound ways. At the risk of being repetitive, I remind you of how my wife’s suffering resulted in another person coming to faith. There are many stories in Scripture of God using people’s suffering in incredible ways. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul experiences some sort of “thorn in his flesh”, and though he pleaded with the Lord to have it removed, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Even our suffering can be a conduit to experience God’s grace more fully. Even if we are not cured of our illness, God can use it to heal our hearts to be able to more fully rely on him and experience his grace to an even greater measure. 

3. We can find meaning in suffering

As has been mentioned several times already, God can use suffering in incredible ways. 

Think about the story of Joseph, and how God used the betrayal of Joseph’s brothers, Joseph’s subsequent slavery and even imprisonment to bring about the saving of Joseph’s whole family, who would in future generations become the nation of Israel.

Remember the suffering that King David went through when he was on the run from Saul, fleeing for his life, going from place to place, hiding in caves and in the wilderness. Through all of that, God brought people to David, people who would become some of the most famous warriors in the Bible and would achieve incredible feats for God and for His people. Not to mention that David’s suffering brought himself credibility; on two occasions David could have killed Saul, but David acted uprightly, bringing credibility to himself and thus his future kingly administration.

And of course, the suffering of Jesus was used to set us free and bring us salvation. Consider a prophecy about Jesus, in Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

The Scriptures have many examples where God used the pain and suffering of people to refine them or to help others. Likewise, in the mystical ways of God, our suffering can and is used for God’s own purposes, and even through the pain and struggle of mental illness, God can bring glory to himself and reach out to others. 

New Life Christian Fellowship is a community of believers who seek to Reach Up in worship of God, to Reach Over to one another and to Reach Out to the world around us.