MHI Committee Note: Committed Christians within EMC churches lead the Mental Health Initiative (MHI). The committee believes that faith in Christ is essential for eternal life (John 3:16, 10:10, 14:6) and that there is no substitute for it (1 John 5:20). As a physician is the instrument that God uses to set a broken bone, it is ultimately God who heals the bone. So also, it is Jesus who ultimately heals our hopeless thoughts and beliefs, chemically imbalanced brains, overwhelmed emotions and broken relationships. This healing work is accomplished through any number of resources that may include doctors, medications, pastors, scripture, prayer, counselors, social workers, family and friends. As a pastor and a guest writer for the MHI, Kevin Wiebe recognizes the importance of personal faith in Christ and the delicate interplay among biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of each person.
by Kevin Wiebe
After a decade of full-time ministry I have met many people who lived with mental illness. How do we as Christians respond? How are we to think theologically and biblically about mental illness? Sometimes we have unhealthy theology, but thankfully there is also healthy theology. At the ministerial day in July 2015, Irma Janzen spent some time addressing this concern. This article is a condensed version of a blog post I wrote in 2015 following that session. Here are several beliefs that are in need of addressing.
The Belief that Depression is Always the Result of Sin
If everyone who sinned became depressed, then everyone in the world would suffer from depression. Even if it were a specific sin, this would still not line up with reality. While sin does influence our lives in profound ways, clinical depression is an illness, or a disease in the brain. Our spiritual lives can and do affect our physical bodies, from mental illness to heart disease.
Yet even people of incredible faith in the Bible are believed to have suffered from depression. Elijah experienced such grief and sorrow that he wished he was dead (1 Kings 17-19). The same is true of Moses (Numbers 11:15).
What we know is that no one thing causes depression. We also know that sin is not helpful for us whether we live with depression or not. We live in a fallen world, and we can no more blame depression on sin than we can asthma.
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. That belief, however, 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 reminds us that faith without works is dead. Trying to solve our neighbour’s hunger only by praying—when we have food to give—is a ridiculous notion. James 4:17 even calls it sin when we do not help when it is in our power to do so.
When someone comes to you, you can refer them to a mental health professional and in this way be a help to them. That does not negate the need for prayer because it is powerful, and many miracles have happened through prayer.
God has created us to live in a physical body. Whether it is food for the hungry, a cast for a broken bone, or medication and treatment for a mental illness, there are times we must couple prayer with physical action.
The Belief that Hallucinations and Delusions are Demonic
I will again state my beliefs bluntly in hope 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 Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
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 such bondage. If hallucinations and delusions are demonic, then asking God to take them away is appropriate.
However, if delusions and hallucinations are the result of an illness, asking God to remove them will lead to disappointment and further blame may be put on the person who has them or the people who are praying. For many people they can be cleared up with medication.
Some street drugs have chemicals that can cause hallucinations—such chemical imbalances in the brain can cause this. The difference in mental illness is that it is not self-induced. To insist it is only spiritual places a huge burden on those who are suffering. When there is mental illness and spiritual leaders insist that it is a spiritual problem, it causes great damage and becomes spiritually abusive. It is preventing someone from receiving proper treatment for their illness and becomes negligence.
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. My wife went years with an undiagnosed medical condition. Some people told her 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. Since then, my wife has received medical treatment for her condition and she doing well. God answered our prayers through the work of human medical professionals.
The idea that God answers prayers in Scripture is also deeply rooted in Scripture, from Jonah preventing catastrophe for Nineveh, or using pagan nations as a means to accomplish God’s purposes, such as Assyria and Babylon.
In the Bible, even Paul and the other apostles eventually died. No person, no matter how great their faith, was able to avoid death. Even Jesus went to the grave.
I do believe that miraculous healing can and does happen. I also believe that how we live in the midst of suffering can also reveal evidence of strong faith. Prior to my wife receiving the proper diagnosis, there were several dire possibilities. Yet her consistent faith in the midst of suffering resulted in someone coming to faith.
It seems that those who respond to suffering in Christ-like ways—both in Bible times and today—demonstrate an even greater faith than those who never have to linger in the depths of such sorrow. Since those years, my wife has received a diagnosis, along with medical treatment for her condition and she is doing very well. God answered our prayers through the work of human medical professionals.
The Belief that Human Action is Not an Answer to Prayer
Sometimes the answer to our prayers lies in the work of people—Christian or otherwise—which is an idea that is deeply rooted in Scripture. Jonah’s ministry prevented catastrophe for Nineveh. Even gentile nations were used as a means to accomplish God’s will; the nation of Assyria being used as an instrument for God’s purpose (Isaiah 10:6).
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) is a story about someone whom the Jews despised meeting the physical needs of someone else; Jesus ends it with the command to do likewise. In the same way, the help offered by mental health professionals is often a profound answer to prayer.
There are also some theological truths that are extremely helpful when dealing with mental illness.
People Can Experience God’s Unconditional Love in Times of Darkness
Palm 46:1 tells us that, ”God is our refuge in time of trouble,” which means that we will have trouble. Romans 8:31-29 reminds us that nothing can separate believers from the love of God, and this love can be experienced even in times of darkness. Read the passage for yourself, and you will see that there is nothing, not even a mental illness, that can prevent God from loving you.
Even If You Are Not Cured, 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.” This plainly tells us that we surely can experience the amazing grace and forgiveness of God.
No matter how sick you are, how much pain you’re in, or how dark the valley is, these promises from God still hold true. You can cling to those truths even if you don’t feel them. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is with us even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Furthermore, 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.
We Can Find Meaning in Suffering
God can use our suffering in profound ways. There are many stories in Scripture of God using people’s suffering in incredible ways. Joseph, David, Paul, Jesus, and many others demonstrate this in the Scriptures. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul experienced 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” (12:9). There is meaning in suffering.
The Bottom Line
Discussing mental illness should not be at odds with our faith. Our response to it becomes more powerful when we view it holistically and through the lens of God’s Word, offering spiritual and emotional support even when referring people to those that can help them deal with the physiological realities of their condition. Let us acknowledge both spiritual and physical realities for the glory of God and the love of God’s people.
Kevin Wiebe, BA, is the pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship (Stevenson/Tilbury, Ont.) and has held various administrative and educational roles in the EMC.