I straddle two subcultures in my daily interactions…one composed of kids and families impacted by mental illness and the other of persons immersed by occupation or relationship in a socially conservative subculture within evangelical Christianity. To say that thought leaders in the mental health community and the more evangelical branches of the church struggle with understanding one another’s fears and concerns would be a gigantic understatement.
The cynic in me suspects that Matt Walsh’s provocative comments about Robin Williams’ “choice” to commit suicide may at some level be a strategy to generate page views and increase the visibility of his blog in search engines. But he touches on an important issue that those of us who advocate for individuals and families impacted by mental illness within the church will have to address within any meaningful dialogue…the issue of free will.
One reason why mental health advocates and church leaders all too often end up talking at one another instead of with one another is that each group sees the other as failing to recognize and integrate an essential view of the origins of mental illness into their understanding of the problem.
The Greek philosophers wrestled with the concept of free will for hundreds of years before Paul wrote the Book of Romans. Our conceptualizations of God’s righteousness and grace are closely tied into our understanding of our freedom to make moral choices and the extent to which a just God can hold us accountable for our decisions.
In child psychiatry, we wrestle all the time with questions from parents wondering whether their kids have the capacity to control troublesome behaviors. In general, these questions don’t lend themselves to “all or nothing” answers. A first grader with combined type ADHD has some capacity to control their impulses to punch and kick their younger sibling, but they may have to work harder at controlling the behavior than their friend across the street without ADHD. What level of moral responsibility does a non-verbal boy with autism and a history of sexual victimization bear for fondling younger children? Or the man with bipolar disorder who spends his kid’s college fund on cocaine and hookers in the middle of a manic episode? Katie Wetherbee wrote a fabulous blog post in which she discusses whether the people who jumped out of the upper floors of the World Trade Center on September 11 were truly free to “choose” to stay in their offices given the unimaginable horror of their immediate environment.
Maybe one of the reasons the church has struggled so mightily to respond with appropriate resources, empathy and understanding to people with mental illness is that they present challenges that cut to the heart of our understandings of the nature of man and the character of God? Wrestling with our core concepts of whether we’re capable of freely choosing God (or any other actions) and the extent to which God chooses us can be very uncomfortable!
Here’s the flip side to the discussion-the part that my friends in mental health advocacy may be missing…just because we can’t point out an area labeled as the “soul” on an MRI or SPECT scan of the brain doesn’t mean that people don’t have one! My fellow scientists are profoundly uncomfortable acknowledging realities that we’re unable to measure or quantify. We’re more than just the sum of our synapses, neurotransmitters and life experiences. There’s way too much that we’re not capable of explaining about illnesses like depression through physical science and there are too many reputable counselors and pastors with far too many reports in which resolution of faith-related issues brought about recovery from mental illness. When mental health advocates fail to acknowledge and integrate moral and spiritual perspectives with an understanding of neuroscience in discussions of how the church can minister with families impacted by mental illness, they lose trust and credibility with church leaders.
Consider the parallels between this discussion and another discussion our culture wrestles with…the extent to which sexual orientation is an immutable human characteristic, and whether one’s sexual behavior represents an outcome of the exercise of free will. In each case, we have some general sense that genetic predisposition (without evidence that one gene, or set of genes are causative), environmental influences and life experiences contribute to the condition/behavior in question. We also have a multitude of reports that spiritual conversion led to relief from depression and/or suicidal thinking or a change in sexual orientation/behavior…reports that are rejected by those who argue against a “free will” component being present.
The biggest mistake I’ve ever made serving in a ministry capacity took place a few years ago when I publicly called out an ambitious young ministry leader who had carved out a platform of considerable influence for making some statements that (in my view) discouraged many churches from serving a large segment of kids with special behavioral needs. It wasn’t very gracious on my part…this leader probably hadn’t thought the statements through completely, but my lack of grace precluded any possibility of working collaboratively. We need to be “bridge builders” as opposed to bridge burners.
Matt was clearly insensitive…but he raised important issues that all Christians will need to wrestle with in terms of free will and moral responsibility. We’re all going to struggle from time to time integrating real-life quandaries with the Absolute Truth as revealed to us through Scripture. A little grace is more likely to produce constructive conversations that lead to change within the church.
- Links to all the posts from our recent blog series on depression
- Links to other outstanding blog posts on the topic from leaders in the disability ministry community
- Links to educational resources on the web, including excellent resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), a parent medication guide, and excellent information from Mental Health Grace Alliance.